Since 1945, the United States has pursued its interests in part through the creation and maintenance of international economic institutions, global organizations including the United Nations and G-7, bilateral and regional security organizations including alliances, and liberal political norms that collectively are often referred to as the “international order.”

In recent years, rising powers have begun to challenge aspects of this order, argues Testing the Value of the Postwar International Order.

Many treatments of the postwar order focus on its primary institutions—the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and World Trade Organization system, the US alliance structure, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the G-7 and G-20, and the hundreds of subsidiary organizations, treaties, and conventions of the institutional order.

Those elements embody a critical component of the postwar order, but two other elements must be included to understand its true importance.

One is the level of identifiable multilateral collaboration that has come to characterize many state interactions in a globalizing era. The other is the emergence of an implicit community of largely like-minded, order-producing states at the core of world politics.

Taken together, these three components—the institutional order, the demonstrated propensity toward multilateral action, and the core group of states—are what is meant in this by the postwar order.

Effect and Value

Evaluating the effects of the postwar order is a challenging task. Many factors conspire to produce the results sought by the order—global economic growth, peace and stability, democratization—and it can be difficult to separate the effect of specific institutions or actions.

Scholars have tried to do so with regard to particular elements of the order, such as human rights treaties and environmental agreements, but many of these studies are either highly conditional or disputed by other studies, or else they simply end up highlighting the role of many independent factors in generating outcomes.

The question then is whether the role of the order has been important at all—whether it is simply window dressing on outcomes that would have emerged in any case

The components of the postwar order can only have significant effects when pooled with other factors, ranging from US power to supportive international opinion, to associated macroeconomic trends.

The question then is whether the role of the order has been important at all—whether it is simply window dressing on outcomes that would have emerged in any case.

To answer that question, this study reviewed multiple sources of evidence.

The foundation of the research was a review of hundreds of studies assessing the effects of specific components of the order, such as trade treaties or human rights conventions.

Data and trends gathered in earlier studies were used to make independent assessments of causal links between elements of the order and key US goals.

The resulting analysis produced five major findings.

1) The postwar order offers significant value to US interests and objectives

A combination of quantitative evidence, case studies, and expert validation suggests that the postwar order has had important value in legitimizing and strengthening US influence and institutionalizing and accelerating positive trends.

The order has such value for the United States in part because its outcomes strongly support the goals and processes of the US grand strategy.

When considering the benefits of the postwar order, the whole is in fact greater than the sum of the parts: the collective effect of the order has limited but important influence over the preferences and behaviour of states.

Examples that can be verified with case-study or empirical evidence include the influence of the order’s multilateral sensibility, both within alliances and more broadly; the gravitational effect of an integrated global market and the conditions for membership of its leading institutions; and the role of long-term normative socialization.

Taken together—and again, combined with the role of other factors, such as US power and global trends—the postwar order has created a form of dynamic equilibrium in the international system that has promoted stability and reduced uncertainty.

2) The order contributes to outcomes with measurable value

We assessed ten illustrative issues and located the best estimates available for their economic value—whether avoiding protectionism, securing allied support for conflicts, or controlling piracy.

In each case we offered a judgment, based on historical comparisons, of a potential counterfactual scenario absent the existence of the order in order to help understand the causal relationships.

To the extent that the institutions, relationships, norms, and implicit communities of the order have played a necessary role in avoiding even one of these major negative outcomes, the value dwarfs the investments the United States makes in the order.

3) The postwar order represents a leading US competitive advantage

The US-led order has served as an important source of US competitive advantage in the postwar world. This is not to suggest that the order has disproportionately benefited the United States as opposed to others, though some empirical work suggests that this may indeed be true in several narrow issue areas, such as the degree of influence in international organizations.

More broadly, though, it could be argued that the order has benefited others more than America.

It has, for example, created a context in which some states have experienced faster and longer-lasting economic growth than the United States. As a result, relative US predominance has gradually declined. It has committed the United States to bearing a disproportionate share of the global burden of security, allowing other states to enhance investments in non-defence areas.

But the postwar order—and the associated US grand strategy— was never designed to keep relative advantage over friends and partners. It aimed to nurture multiple reservoirs of stability and values in the international system beyond the United States as a way of creating a context in which US interests would be safer.

The competitive advantage provided by the postwar order thus comes not in terms of relative advantage over others, but rather in the support it has provided to the overall U.S. grand strategy.

It has created a context in which others would be more likely to support U.S. efforts than they would otherwise have been. As the leader and sponsor of a multilateral order, the United States has not been merely another great power: It has been the architect of a system of mutual advantage.

This simple fact has carried significant geopolitical advantage.

Specific institutions have worked alongside U.S. diplomacy to achieve U.S. objectives. Alliances and partnerships have fueled burden sharing. Norms promulgated by the order provide reference points to hold states accountable to progress in specific directions. The result has been a safer, more stable, and more prosperous world, which has trans- lated into a smaller burden for U.S. national security policy.

By providing a vision of a better world, one shaped by the United States and reflecting its values but representing an aspiration for the world community, the postwar order has also lashed US power to a broadly endorsed purpose.

This legitimizing function has had benefits for the United States. Most notably, it has meant that few if any states have perceived a need to undertake classic balancing of American power—thus potentially saving the United States tens of billions of dollars in additional defence expenditures that would have been necessary had others sought to balance its power more aggressively.

4) If the United States Wants to Continue to Lead Globally, Some Form of Order Is Vital

If the United States were to adopt a radically different global posture— for example, a form of retrenchment—the cost-benefit equation of a shared order might change.

Even in that case, some components of the order—such as a multilateral economic system—would remain useful in protecting U.S. vital interests. But if the United States wants to continue to lead globally, a functioning international order is indispensable.

Without the benefits and legitimacy conferred by such an order, vibrant US leadership would likely become financially and strategically unaffordable.

5) A functioning multilateral order will be essential to deal with emerging security and economic issues

The report looks ahead to the security and economic issues likely to dominate the U.S. agenda in coming years, including managing stable strategic competitions, dealing with climate change, building a more just economy, and engaging in counterterrorism. It concludes that the United States would have greater difficulty in addressing the risks to its security and prosperity in such issues outside the context of an effective multilateral order.

More broadly, at a time of growing rivalry, nationalism, and uncertainty, a functioning multilateral order will be essential to provide stabilizing ballast to an increasingly unruly global environment.

Conclusion

These findings represent a qualified but still powerful endorsement of the essential American conception of its role in the world.

Support for a form of world order, both as an instrumental tool to safeguard American interests and as a collective effort to shape a better future, is part of the American ethos.

While the form of the US global role has evolved, these principles have reflected a particularly American expression of international interests. That the postwar variety of this endeavour has measurably contributed to those interests re-emphasizes the continuing relevance of this quintessentially American vision.

Testing the Value of the Postwar International Order, Michael J.Mazarr, Ashley L. Rhoades